Flock and Herd logo


The state veterinary service in New South Wales

Dan Salmon

Posted Flock & Herd September 2018


I will be focusing on the early years of animal disease control. For anyone interested in the history of the service the Flock and Herd site www.flockandherd.net.au is an excellent resource.

There are the year books that have the proceedings of the conferences since 1935. These include a history of the service by EA Lucas, Inspector of Stock, Maitland in the 1945 year book and a meticulously researched paper by Barry Kemp in the 2003 year book.

As well as the year books there is an amazing body of work by Peter Frecklington that lists every reference to animal disease, stock inspectors, veterinary inspectors or district veteriarians in the available newspaper files over the past century or so.


The early iterations of government veterinary service were based on the English genesis of the profession as superior farriers rather than the European concept of scientists protecting livestock industries.

The first government veterinary surgeons were convicts whose services were allocated to settlers in much the same way as licences to import rum. I don't know what their crimes were but there seemed to be an inordinate number of them. As a aside, it was equally disconcerting when searching for stock inspectors in the NSW Government Gazette that there seemed to be more stock inspectors in the list of bankruptcies than in the list of appointments.

The next group of government veterinary surgeons were those appointed to care for the horses of the mounted police and the volunteer rifles. There was provision for certain numbers of veterinary surgeons to serve a certain number of troops or squadrons.

The first Cattle Inspectors were appointed under the Cattle Slaughtering Act of 1830 that endeavoured to alleviate the appalling way in which meat was prepared.

My talk is not going to consider these worthy activities but rather look at official measures to control diseases of livestock.


With European (well, English) settlement came European livestock and they brought their suite of diseases. Many of the conditions that we deal with today probably came on the First Fleet.

It has been stated that the long sea voyage prevented the introduction of some of the worst livestock diseases into Australia. Many of the diseases that did not get introduced have an inapparent carrier state the last much longer than the time at sea from England to Australia, let alone Brazil or South Africa (both common stopovers), so it was just good luck that not every disease came in at once.

As well as the diseases that came by boat, there was a reasonable group of pathogens eking out an existence in some isolated native animal population that found the introduced species eminently suitable for their own purposes. We are finding this still with bluetongue, ephemeral fever, Hendra virus and lyssavirus.

The first to draw much attention was sheep catarrh. It appeared when sheep first reached the Goulburn area in 1834. It caused high mobidity and mortality and spread with the travelling mobs. It stimulated boards of enquiry and much legislation aimed at controlling it. For no good reason it gradually disappeared and except for an occasional act to control it was barely mentioned by the end of the 19th Century. Exactly what it was nobody knows. There are some excellent contemporary clinical and autopsy reports that do not resemble anything of which I am aware. My best guess is that it was the herpes virus that causes bovine malignant catarrh before it became non-pathogenic for sheep.

There is a case that the sheep blowfly (Lucilia cuprina) was another. The South Africans claim that it originated in Australia, the Australians claim that it originated in South Africa. DNA analysis indicates that it may even have come from the Pacific islands. In any case it was fairly obscure until it came into contact with sheep.

The other big disease of the day was sheep scab (Psoroptes ovis).

When it was realised that Australia was a good place to grow wool and that wool was worth enough to justify sending it halfway around the world in a sailboat a disease that caused such damage to wool as scab did assumed significance. Once again a flurry of legislation and boards of review until finally the establishment of the NSW livestock health service.


Initially livestock disease control was vested in the legal system, with Justices of the Peace being the persons responsible for enforcing the livestock disease legislation. This must have had some issues because the 1854 Scab in Sheep act provided for the Governor to appoint inspectors for the purpose of examining sheep. It is of interest that Inspectors of Stock and then Veterinary Inspectors were appointed by the Governor until the Rural Lands Protection Act of 1989.

In 1855 and 1856 Inspectors were appointed to 18 districts, including the district of Brisbane and Ipswich. There were provisions to levy stock owners to pay their salaries. In 1864 boards of directors were established to administer the districts.

The introduction into Australia of anthrax in 1847 and then pleuropneumonia in 1858 was also a cause of much angst, not to mention boards of enquiry. One aspect of the board of enquiry into Cumberland disease (anthrax) was the number of autopsy reports on livestock compared to somewhat offhand mention of the names of the people who had died after cutting themselves during the autopsies.

When pleuro was imported into Victoria the Legislative Council passed an act prohibiting the importation of cattle from Victoria into NSW. Unfortunately it was passed 6 months after the disease had crossed the Murray.

From there it spread with travelling mobs and bullock teams up into Queensland where it became endemic and a source of infection for NSW until the 1950s.

One positive from the pleuro outbreak was the appointment of Alexander Bruce, the poundkeeper at 10 Mile Creek (later Germanton now Holbrook), as a Cattle Inspector. Bruce was appointed as the first Chief Inspector of Stock in 1864. He served until 1902, retiring at 75 year of age, and helped to establish a professional livestock health service in NSW.

Such was his energy that scab was eradicated by 1868 and catarrh must have sensed the spirit of the times: it seems to have thrown in the towel and stopped killing sheep.

There still seemed to be plenty to occupy the service even though its reason for establishment had gone, evidenced by the body of stock disease legislation of the 19th Century.

One (albeit rare) example of legislative prescience was the Imported Stock Act of 1870, aimed at reducing the number of new diseases brought into NSW. This was followed in late 1871 by the diagnosis of foot-and-mouth disease in a cow in quarantine on the hulk Parramatta on the Parramatta River. Inspector Yeo is mentioned as involved in the process. His name next appears in the bankruptcy list.

The cow was destroyed and the disease eradicated.


In the early days inspectors were “suitably qualified” persons. In 1884 the Board of Stock Examiners was established: the Chairman of the Board of Sheep Directors, Sydney, the Chief Inspector of Stock and the Government Veterinarian were appointed to ensure that inspectors were competent in the diagnosis and management of diseases of livestock. These examinations were apparently fairly rigorous. There were advertisements by coaching schools offering tuition that would get applicants through the exam. When veterinarians were first registered in 1923, people holding a certificate from the Board of Stock Examiners could be registered. This remained the case until 1934.

This also seems to have prompted the appointment of what appears to be the first Government Veterinarian, Anthony Willows MRCVS in 1883.

In my day the appearance before the Stock Board of Examiners was a half-hour chat during which they seem to have decided that having a veterinary degree probably made me qualified. I gather that it was a little more rigorous for Rangers.


During the century since the first annual conference of the Institute of Stock Inspectors there have been some notable developments in the state veterinary service.

For a start, there have not been another hundred conferences. The second was cancelled because of “the epidemic” (Spanish 'flu?), other conferences were cancelled because of animal disease problems (cattle tick in 1932, equine influenza in 2007) and World War II (1940 and 1942). That means that this is probably the 96th conference.

The establishment of the Veterinary Research Laboratory at Glenfield in 1923 was the beginning of a significant arm of the state veterinary service. The labs spread to Armidale, Wollongbar, Wagga and Orange before contracting again to Menangle in the late 20th Century.

The quality of the diagnostic and research activity has been exemplary and the sheer volume of specimens handled in some of the major disease programs is also amazing.

In the early days the difficulty of sample submission limited the effectiveness of the laboratory. Sucking a sample into a glass pipette (hoping that the wad of cotton wool in the mouth end would prevent aspiration of any zoonotic agents), sealing the pipette by melting the ends, packing it into a zinc-lined box and putting it on a train at 2PM on Tuesday or Thursday meant that a lot of diagnoses were based on clinical and post-mortem examination. If the suspected disease was anthrax we got the results by telegram, otherwise we waited for the post.

The regional labs made access for diagnostic samples much better, but it also fostered a collegiate relationship between the field and laboratory staff that cannot be replicated by a single large entity located a day's drive away.

The other major event was the eradication of the three great cattle plagues that had become established in NSW and Australia (contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, bovine tuberculosis and bovine Brucellosis).

Pleuro was eradicated using quarantine, slaughter, vaccination, some testing and border controls.

TB was eradicated by test and slaughter. Using a completely field based test (intradermal tuberculin) with some laboratory investigation of reactors.

Brucellosis was eradicated by throwing money at it until it went away. The logistics of collecting blood samples from every beast in the country, getting the samples to a laboratory and only killing the animals that reacted to the test were fairly daunting. One thing in our favour was the fact that the industry was committed to the program, notably because the US had stated that they were going to eradicate Brucellosis and ban beef imports from any infected countries.

One significant advance that made TB and Brucellosis eradication possible was the introduction of tail tags in 1970.

Tail tags were invented by Bruce Watt's father-in-law. He based them on a band that was put on his wrist in a hospital in New Zealand so that they would not lose him or amputate a limb unnecessarily.

Every property in NSW was able to apply for a tail tag number where the prefix indicated the District and the second set of numbers indicated the numerical order in which the application had been made.

All cattle that went through a saleyard or abattoir had to have a tail tag. When TB was found at the abattoir we could then go back to the porperty and test the rest of the cattle. Blood samples from breeding cattle at abattoirs took us back to herds infected with Brucellosis.

Even though they were developed in Victoria, the fact that the use of tail tags for disease surveillance was pioneered in NSW meant that Victoria rejected the idea. Victoria implemented a much better program with sticky labels on the backs of cattle. Once this approach had failed miserably they adopted tail tags and their successors RFIDs.

One thing to note is that while transaction ID was a disease control measure there was a significant amount of effort required to enforce it. Once processors started to use traceability for their marketing programs compliance was no longer an issue.

As well as the cattle plagues there were various disease incursions successfully controlled: rinderpest (NSW official veterinarians but possibly not stock inspectors helped with the 1923 (again! 1923 was also the year that the last Stock Diseases Act was passed) incursion into WA), swine fever, avian influenza, swine influenza, equine influenza and Newcastle disease. There were also the programs that eradicated Enzootic Bovine Leucosis (EBL) from dairy herds and almost made it with footrot: both well-established endemic diseases.

An issue that, on the face of it, is an unlikely subject for the state veterinary service is chemical residues.

When in 1973 the Director-General of Agriculture, Roy Watts, established a program to test for chemical residues in cattle and to enforce programs to remove them from the food chain there was a certain level of bemusement. Dr Watts seemed to be the only person in Australia who thought that there may be a problem. The work fell to the PP Boards and government veterinarians because we had the background in enforcement. The support from the non-veterinary sections of the Department was non-existent and in some cases actively undermined. Many took the attitude that controlling weeds or insect pests took precedence over any risk of food contamination. It was little comfort then that 45 years later they would be gone and we would be still here.

There was a fair bit of grief, but eventually residues became a thing of the past and there is now a Commonwealth department telling us how we should be doing the job.

Before we get too smug (the older we get the better we were) we should consider the failures. There have been a few, some of them quite spectacular.

Sheep lice, ovine Johne's disease, bovine Johne's disease and to a lesser extent cattle tick all come to mind as programs that were not appropriate to the epidemiological fundamentals of the disease at the time. In some cases the level of resources at the beginning was woefully inadequate, but mission creep usually ensured that the programs ended up costing much more than the disease.

To be fair, in most cases, the research that accompanied the failed regulatory approach meant that the diseases could be effectively managed in a dergulated environment.


So: a century of conferences and a century or so before that. We have come a fair way, but that is no guarantee of continued existence. Even continued satisfactory outcomes are not enough. Remember the management principles of the public sector:


Site contents and design Copyright 2006-2024©